The Humanities, Plural

Photo of Celeste Langan.

The Humanities, Plural

Celeste Langan

“It is well to have some water in your neighborhood,” suggests Thoreau in Walden. Punning on “well” (itself a kind of “walled-in” pond), he suggests that digging into apparently solid ground to discover water below offers a salutary reminder that “earth is not continent but insular”—that is, land masses even as large as continents do not so much contain as they are contained— surrounded—by bodies of water.

More than the so-called “disciplines,” departments at a large research university can function like “continents”—containers—rather than offer, as in Thoreau’s ideal vision, a “foundation” that is also a “port.” The intellectual resources of each department are sufficiently rich, and the obligations placed on its faculty and students sufficiently demanding, that without a Townsend Center only the most intrepid of new faculty and graduate students would have more than occasional or random contact with faculty and students from other departments.

In such a context, perhaps the greatest value of constituting a “center” around so vague a concept as “the humanities” is the incongruity of that term itself. The question Jean-Luc Nancy posed in The Muses—“Why are there several arts and not just one?”—might be applied to “the humanities” as well. In its plural form, the term de-centers and gives “buoyancy and float” (Thoreau’s words) to a concept that might otherwise congeal into an apparently solid substance: humanity. The plural form’s insistence on “several” humanities offers a wonderfully dangerous opportunity to think about the differences among past, present, and future “species” of humanity, to consider not only different cultures, languages, and generations (first- and second-generation Romantic poets, Issei and Nisei, the echo boom) but also new (and old) social movements as productive of new forms of humanity. As a multiple, moreover, the “humanities” suggests the relevance to the humanities of non-biological forms of reproduction (digitalization, for example), leading us to question prevailing organic and genealogical models of “culture,” “language,” and “generation,” and making the “posthuman” a relevant critical concept.

Of course, “the humanities” have derived many benefits, including social and academic self-justification, from the notion of a single humanity. In this form, “humanity” gets most frequently deployed as a value term synonymous with “humane” or “humanitarian.” One demonstrates one’s humanity in the humane treatment of animals (though as Cary Wolfe has pointed out, this seems to require forgetting that humans are animals), of prisoners, of the poor, of the disabled. (Indeed, people outside the ‘walled-in” academic community sometimes seem to read the phrase “liberal arts” as meaning “those departments that teach the arts of being fiscally or politically liberal.”) But the difference between the plural and singular conceptualizations of “humanity”—the tendency of the “public world” to see humanities departments and centers as “foundations” and the tendency of scholars to see them as “ports”—is a source of potential conflict that remains to be solved—put “in solution,” as it were.

Or at least that is Thoreau’s suggestion for counteracting the “insolvent” (singular) form of humanity. The relevant “solution” might very well be a corrosive one. Suppose, for example, that William Blake is right, and “Pity would be no more,/ If we did not make somebody Poor?” If emotions such as pity and compassion—emotions sometimes thought to constitute our “humanity”—are actually produced (we “make” people poor, according to Blake, just as Wordsworth laments “what man has made of man”) by practices and institutions that we type as “inhumane,” we are confronted with a constitutive contradiction; the very “heart” of the humanitarian subject depends upon its inhumanity.

Some might suggest—have suggested—that such arguments imperil or impoverish “the humanities” themselves. By renouncing authority to decide with finality on the ethical or the good (even as an evaluative aesthetic category), professors of a pluralized “humanities” no longer offer “the goods.” Long regarded as the “deserving poor” of the research university, now humanities departments, by failing to confirm prevailing public opinion about “human values,” risk the loss of charitable giving, public funding. Hence, panicked attempts to prove, for example, that training in the visual arts enables doctors to observe and diagnose more effectively. To my mind, such projects err by uncritically adopting a model of “proper” humanity as effective, efficient, productive—values we usually employ to judge technologies, machines—the non-human (although, of course, technologies and machines, being “mind-forg’d,” are absolutely human).

That’s why, following Thoreau, I would prefer to risk the possibility of dissolution that comes with every encounter of a solid with solution. To engage in interdisciplinary research and conversation, not only across but even beyond the humanities, is certainly to risk an intellectual insolvency (as now, when I feel the lack of high school chemistry). Yet the alternative is, to my mind, no longer even feasible. Insofar as “the humanities” are regarded as remedial disciplines, whose chief value is merely to offset the implicitly inhumane conditions of what is called “the public world,” they will fail to break free from the container of the ivory tower.

Within that tower, the Townsend Center plays a vital role in keeping the humanities in flux. James Chandler has pointed out that the proliferation of humanities centers at research universities is coincident with the emergence of a new genre or species in the humanities, marked by the (pluralized) locution “studies,” often with an equivocal modifier (“women’s studies” ambiguously referencing study of or by women, even as “media studies” often entails using new media at once as tool and object of analysis). But without some kind of supradepartmental organization, such formations—the Townsend Working Groups are a perfect example—struggle with a tendency to devolve from interdisciplinary engagement to subdisciplinary conversation. As a longtime participant in the Music and Literature working group, for example, I was fascinated to see how easily musicologists could “hear” musical notation, without needing to play it on an instrument. But often I was the only non-musicologist in attendance, the only one whose underdeveloped ear acted as a reminder of different levels of musical literacy, of the non-universal character of the human sensorium.

What I value most about the pluralized “humanities” is their challenge to mastery. I have always found it easier to ask real questions when I’m not expected to know the answer; my best teaching usually occurs in the face of new material. It is true, as a friend remarked, that interdisciplinary research risks making the humanities scholar a “jack of all trades, ‘doctor’ of none.” But the plural form, with its suggestion of still-unfolding “humanities,” means that to be a professor of humanities is always an aspiration rather than an achievement.

In this respect, I think the greatest achievement of Berkeley’s humanities center has been its success, from the outset, in encouraging interchange not just among the different humanities disciplines, but also among its various cohorts. Townsend dissertation fellows mingle with junior as well as senior faculty. Associate professors—tenured in their fields of expertise—can “apprentice” themselves to new fields in the Bridging Grants program or elect a peer as an interlocutor in the Initiative program. Graduate students arriving on campus as Discovery fellows are mentored both by faculty and more advanced graduate students, and they organize a program each year that ideally marks out a ground-breaking (well-digging) humanities research project. Even undergraduates, though still in my opinion less well-integrated, have the opportunity provided by the G.R.O.U.P. program to participate in the process of rethinking the humanities.

Of course there are still problems; there is still too much isolation, too few communities of scholars. Too many graduate students feel mystified when confronted with the necessity of finding an “outside examiner” for their qualifying exams or a third reader for their dissertations. Similarly, professors often feel unqualified to examine or advise on a third “field” often of a student’s own devising. Nor is it clear that there will be jobs to fit a newly developed interdisciplinary expertise, or that an audience for nontraditional work will always be found. All of us need to do a better job, I think, of explaining why our work ought to interest those not in our titular “field.” And to do that, we need to have multiple conversations. I consider it my job, as Faculty Director of Programs, to help sustain those conversations.

Celeste Langan is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Faculty Director of Programs at the Townsend Center. A recent participant in the Strategic Working GROUP on New Media, she has taught courses on Literature and Media Theory and Literature and Disability. Author of Romantic Vagrancy (1995) and “Mobility Disability,” her more recent publications include “Telepathos: Medium Cool Romanticism” and “Pathologies of Communication from Coleridge to Schreber.” She is currently working on a book-length project called Post-Napoleonism: Imagining Sovereignty After 1799.

This article can be found in the September 2006 newsletter